For the Birds Radio Program: Sibling Rivalry

Original Air Date: Dec. 17, 1999 Rerun Dates: Dec. 26, 2002; Dec. 22, 2000

Little birdies don’t often agree in the nest. This is the original program with the ad for how Earth Angel Bird Identification Binoculars saved Christmas.

Duration: 5′47″


Around holiday time, a lot of people brace themselves for family get-togethers. Even those who love their families dearly can get stressed out by a bit too much closeness. Sometimes sibling rivalry rears its ugly head as brothers and sisters vie for attention and gifts from their parents. Which, of course, reminds me of little birds vying for parental attention in their nests.

Some kinds of birds are very aggressive with their brothers and sisters. Fratricide is actually common in herons and egrets, and happens once in a while with hawks and rarely with owls. The two baby flickers I once raised were very aggressive toward each other, sometimes pecking viciously at the eyes one another, though oddly they stayed together even after they were fairly independent, cruising through the neighborhood and looking out for each other the way some children bicker relentlessly when left alone, but defend each other when anyone dares criticize one of them. Some baby songbirds squabble, but most are remarkably agreeable-I’ve noticed that baby Blue Jays in particular seem to be good buddies, learning from and cooperating with one another, even if they all start saying “Me, first!” when the parents return with food.

Scientists used to think that baby birds vocalize strictly to get their parents’ attention or food, but that they don’t particularly communicate with one another, but now a scientist at the University of Bern in Switzerland has found that baby Barn Owls vocalize specifically to work out their priorities before their parents return with a meal. Zoologist Alexandre Roulin found that the owlets call all night long, even when parents are nowhere near, and after studying them, he concluded that the function of their incessant calling is to help them negotiate with one another for food before the parents show up. The hungriest chicks win the calling contests while the parents are away, and when the parents return with the food, the siblings refrain from begging until the hungriest baby is fed.

Roulin speculates that knowing which of the chicks needs the food most avoids potentially dangerous fights and saves energy. These owls nest in cavities or the rafters of barns, where they are relatively safe from predators. Apparently parent Barn Owls don’t bother with that silly adage that children should be seen but not heard. Baby barn owls should be heard but not seen. Of course, by holiday time this year’s baby owls are full grown and living on their own, not gathering for meals anymore. So I guess it’s up to us humans to vocalize at one another all night now. Here’s hoping we can take a hint from baby Barn Owls and transcend the need to bicker. And here’s a word from Earth Angel Bird Identification Binoculars-their patented mini-microdisk technology will help you identify the birds you see in 12 seconds flat, or your money back.